Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Kenjutsu: Japanese Sword Training




Knowledge and the sharing of it begins with the understanding of language. The building blocks of letters, words, and composition allow people to communicate ideas and for other to understand them, and that is where we are going to begin with this course. 

There is a culture to the katana, a basic way of “how things are done” not only for safety reasons, but also so that all the students understand the format of learning by having a similar basic cultural understanding, similar to rules in a classroom, or the culture of a corporate entity on how people act and dress. 

By doing these rather simple things in your own daily training you will be heightening the awareness of your training lessons, and linking yourself with the samurai tradition, in addition to “fitting in” at the dojo if you pursue further training.



In Japanese culture and the martial arts fitting in is VERY important. Knowing how to act and what is expected means the teacher (sensei) can spend the limited class time sharing valuable lessons rather than telling you how to stand or act appropriately.

Let’s star our exploration of this language by understanding the different types of swords used in studying kenjutsu….



Most of the training is done with a wooden sword made out of Japanese oak or a similar hardwood which represents the katana in size and approximate weight. The length of the sword is around three feet, but will change in size and shape depending on the school and tradition being studied. Formal training in the dojo will dictate this, and for the sake of this course it is not important but must be remembered.

This wooden training sword is known as a bokken, and despite it being wood, it MUST be treated as a REAL sword. Not only can it hurt somebody or yourself in training and thus needs to be respected, treating it as a real sword means you are also building proper handling skills that will carry over if you every pick up a real sword. Keep in mind that the most famous Japanese swordsman ever, Musashi, defeated many opponents in personal combat with a wooden sword while they used a real one.

This means never holding it by the “blade”, treating it carelessly, or tossing it about- it is not a piece of wood, but the spiritual representation of a real sword!

Keeping this in mind, just as one would care for a real sword, it is important to care for your bokken. Inspect it before and after each training session for any splits, cracks or splintering of the wood, so it does not hurt you or your training partner. If in doubt “retire” it and get a new bokken. Safety ALWAYS comes before tradition.

While most of your practice will be done with a bokken, there are times that another training sword is used for when contact is made between two training partners in class- a bokken should never be used for student to student contact.

This type of training sword is known as a fukuro shinai, or just plainly a shinai, and is a split bamboo sword often wrapped in leather or soft cotton to pad it. While not quite as heavy as a bokken it allows a degree of safety when making light contact in training.
Similarly there are times that an aluminum alloy sword is used into solo training (known as an iaito) which has the exact weight and length or a real sword, but being made out of unsharpened aluminum does not have an edge. That said, it still has a point, and the heft of a real sword and can be dangerous if not properly supervised under the direct real time supervision of a teacher.

Finally there is a real sword known as a shinken (live sword) which is the real deal- a fully sharpened and well built samurai sword used for what it was intended for. In martial arts training a shinken is used to practice cutting rolled up Japanese mats and other specialized targets. I mention this in the course as you will often see a shinken used in cutting videos on YouTube and other social media so knowledge of what you are watching (culture) is important.  

That said, there is VERY little reason to ever use a real sword in solo training, and a real sword is NEVER used in partnered training. The risks are just too great for life altering accidents. Please listen to this advice and NEVER use a real sword in practice. To help you understand this context in my dojo students use a bokken for at LEAST five years of training before they are allowed to use an iaito in solo practice. We never use a shinken in class for any reason, and I wouldn’t recommend my students even buying one till at least having ten years of practice under the belt...

Now that you are aware of the types of swords used in training, and what you should be using and not using we can move onto the basic etiquette of the sword and how to treat it when not in use.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the “blade” of the sword is always held facing up when not in use- this is both to protect the blade and to keep it ready for use if needed. Typically when the sword is in its sheath it is held with the left hand or tucked into the belt on the left and drawn with the right hand- this type of drawing and cutting with the sword is known as batto and is a sub skill or kenjutsu, just like grappling with the sword and armor is.  When holding the sword in this manner, while it is not in use, you are aware of how hast it could be, and this builds awareness of space and time without thinking (zanshin).

That said, there are times that the sword is not held this way based on what it symbolizes…

In class techniques are often demonstrated by the teacher while the group stands off to the side and watches what is being shown. Afterwards the teacher will comment on some of the finer points and then the group will break up into senior and junior (sempai and kohai) partners and practice. When a teacher is showing a technique or you are standing around waiting to being practice the sword (bokken) should be held in your right hand with the edge facing up.

By holding it in your right hand you are showing respect in carrying it, but not your intention to use it in batto. If we can use the analogy of a fire arm for illustration, imagine if an instructor was showing you how to shoot and during that you had your pistol out and drawn.

What would that convey vs. having the side arm with the safety on and in your side holster?  

When you are ready to actually practice a technique with a training partner, pass the sword to your left hand, take the handle with your right, assume the staring posture (kamae) and begin the lesson- finish by reversing the process and bowing to your training partner.

Going back for a moment and understanding what a bokken represents, it goes without saying that during training your bokken should never just be left on the floor, held or used like a walking stick in-between lessons or while the teacher is demonstrating. Likewise it should never hit a wall, be dropped on the floor, of bumped into another bokken as you move about.

Always be aware of where the sword is in relation to where you are, your surroundings, the other students, and the other swords in the class. There is a HUGE lesson in this understanding.

Are you ready for the first lesson?

Taking your bokken in your left hand while holding it edge up by your side practice just simply walking around with it. Be aware of where it is and work on implanting in your mind that you are NOT just carrying a piece of wood, but rather a real sword.  

The first step in building awareness of the sword begins with how you care for your bokken and hold your bokken during training- the aim is to have no difference between steel and wood in your mind and ultimately attitude.

When you are done training with your bokken, either alone or perhaps in martial arts class in moving onto bojutsu (stick training) or unarmed training take the time to put away your bokken. 

Many students have a simple cloth bag they store it in- kind of like putting a large sized sock over it and then tying it down and laying it next to their training bag.

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